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Tension City: Inside the Presidential Debates, from Kennedy-Nixon to Obama-McCain

3.28  ·  Rating Details ·  388 Ratings  ·  96 Reviews
“In his quiet but intense way, Jim Lehrer earns the trust of the major political players of our time,” notes Barbara Walters. “He explains and exposes their hopes and dreams, their strengths and failures as they try to put their best foot forward.”

From the man widely hailed as “the Dean of Moderators” comes a lively and revealing book that pulls back the curtain on more th
Hardcover, 224 pages
Published September 13th 2011 by Random House Publishing Group (first published January 1st 2011)
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Sep 09, 2011 Sarah rated it really liked it
Shelves: bea2011
[Reviewed from a galley from Book Expo America 2011. Expected publication date 9/13/2011]

In college, I took a course called "Presidential Rhetoric," taught by a former George HW Bush speechwriter. The class was an interesting study of what presidents say, why and how they say it, and who puts the words into their mouths. Lehrer's new book -- his first nonfiction work in two decades, according to the author bio -- would be a good addendum to a course of that type. I know I'm not the only person w
Oct 18, 2011 Brian rated it liked it
A short book of mostly anecdotes and brief recollections by one of the most prolific debate moderators. Many of these memories I had heard before, but it was sometimes fun to simply enjoy his stories from his perspective.

Won't really bring anything new or enlightening to history, but for those that are fans of Jim Lehrer or are political fans who love watching the debates, then the memories are fun to relive. (like the Clinton/Bush/Perot debates or the Gore/Bush ones in 2000).

It's too bad that
Sep 25, 2011 H. rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction
Famously beginning with the Nixon-Kennedy debate, televised presidential debates have defined the modern era of presidential elections. But after the Nixon-Kennedy debate another presidential debate was not held until the Carter-Ford debate in 1976 (the first vice presidential debate was also held in 1976). They have been a mainstay of the quadrennial presidential election season ever since.

Jim Lehrer is uniquely qualified to write an account of the presidential debates. He has moderated 11 of t
Oct 29, 2011 Jamespc rated it really liked it
Even with Lehrer's lack-luster prose style, this book shines. It reads almost like a sports bio, but addressing Presidential Debates rather than World Series. There are wonderful looks behind the scenes of the debates, including useful information on the creation and selection of the questions. Topics in the book include the story behind the infamous "Killer Question" asked to Michael Dukakis, Monica and Bill's other "women problems", and the question of who actually won the Nixon/Kennedy debate ...more
Nov 26, 2011 David rated it really liked it
Jim Lehrer has seen lots
Of candidates debating:
They screw up a lot.
Dec 07, 2011 Jo rated it liked it
A fast, easy read. I bought an autographed copy for my Dad for Christmas (which is why this review won't go up on Facebook as Dad lurks there on occasion), which I expect he will enjoy immensely as he is a long time fan of Jim Lehrer. For me, it was more lightweight than I expected: more anecdote than analysis (until the end section on how to be a good moderator). It was basically an insider's retrospective on about 40 years of the water cooler moments -- the moments people were talking about th ...more
Jan 06, 2012 Jason rated it liked it
Jim Lehrer has produced an easy, interesting, sometimes humorous, anecdote-filled read about his 20 years moderating presidential debates. Like the author himself, there’s nothing flashy about his writing style; it’s very simple and direct. In fact, Lehrer is so conversational in his tone that at times it seems like he is sitting on a front porch telling tales on a lazy summer afternoon. This makes for an enjoyable read but not a particularly revealing read. Don’t expect anything salacious or sh ...more
Jan 29, 2012 Kathleen rated it really liked it
Shelves: current-events
"Tension City" is the first book I have read by Jim Lehrer, although I am a regular viewer of the "Newshour" on PBS. The book is well written, so it is an easy read. I watched many of the debates that Mr. Lehrer writes about, and remember many of the events in the book. Now I have an understanding of the interesting behind-the-scenes activities of the moderators, panelists, and presidential/vice presidential candidates.
Jul 08, 2012 Monika rated it really liked it
"Tension City: inside the Presidential Debates, from Kennedy-Nixon to Obama-McCain" is a great book for not only us Political Geeks but everyone that likes great story telling. Jim Lehrer is a great reference in regards to this arena and The Interviews were great.

The best interviews were regarding the 1992, 1996 and 2000 debates (President and VP). The Recollections of the debates regarding Al Gore were wonderful.

This is also a great book for those folks that don't love Politics but are interes
Feb 21, 2012 Jen rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
It's tempting to describe this book in terms of what it is not. It is not a comprehensive history of presidential debates. It is not a description of the debate process in general (although there is enough mention of the Commission on Presidential Debates to leave you wanting to learn more about it.) And most importantly, it does not at any point address the question I was dying to ask, which is, why does no political "debate" resemble the discipline of Debate I learned about in high school? You ...more
Mar 21, 2012 John rated it really liked it
Shelves: politics
This book is a bit of a niche book, I will admit. If you like Presidential politics and debates though you will likely find this history of debates by Jim Lehrer interesting. He goes back to the first televised debates of Kennedy and Nixon and covers them up to the 2008 election. Lehrer has been a moderator for many of these debates and he shares his first hand experiences, both good and bad, of the debates and the debaters. He wraps up the book talking about some of the other functions he has m ...more
Apr 09, 2012 NATUI rated it liked it
I read this for my upcoming book club meeting. It was interesting to hear Lehrer's experiences behind the scenes. I think enjoyment of this book is definitely based on how much of the debates one has experienced in their lifetime. It becomes much more relevant when you can remember having watched or listened to the debate and then reading Lehrer's description as he saw it at the time. My favorite part was his acceptance and embrace of his past mistakes. It takes a well-grounded person to be able ...more
Chris Lemery
Jul 29, 2012 Chris Lemery rated it really liked it
Let me start by saying that I really like and respect Jim Lehrer. I think the Newshour is the best news program by far. You learn a lot more by watching one episode of the Newshour than you do from watching 24 straight hours of any of the cable news networks.

This book recounts all the presidential debates, even the ones Lehrer wasn't involved in. I found most of the stories about the non-Lehrer debates to be largely uninteresting, with the exception of the 1988 presidential debate, in which Ber
Jul 30, 2012 Morgan rated it it was ok
Im going to start out saying that I am a political junkie. I watch two things on TV: the news and The Vampire Diaries (in that order). I also am a fan of non-fiction books about 20th century history. My point is that I have read books on similar topics as this and, basically, it is not my first time at the non-fiction political rodeo.

"Tension City" was probably one of the worst non-fiction books that I have ever read. There were a few things that Jim Lehrer did that turned me off as a reader. F
Jeremy Goode
Sep 04, 2012 Jeremy Goode rated it really liked it
An inside edge to the Presidential debates, Jim Lehrer does a good job setting the scene, and the experience of what it is like moderating the debates. Parshly an autobiogrophy, Lehrer describes personnal stories that he encountered with by being the head of the debates. He also tries to answer questions that may have been a concern at the time of the debate. Lehrer speaks about the gyrations that could have hurt a politician, to words that could hurt the entire campaign of a president who wants ...more
Jul 18, 2012 Brandon rated it liked it
Tension City was much better than I expected. This book was a required reading for a class I have to take this year. Considering the required reading for a similar class last year was terrible, I did not know what to expect from this book. After reading this book, my response was it was much better than last year. This book gives a lot of information about the most important part of a presidential campaign, the debates. Considering that Lehrer witnessed most of these debates first hand, this boo ...more
Jul 29, 2012 Cali added it
I have always had an extreme interest in politics and government, which is why this book was interesting to me. Although I had to read it for a class of mine, I am very happy I did. I was able to learn a lot about previous politicians as well as their debates with candidates of theirs. This book went behind the scenes of debates with Jim Lehrer, adding to the detail and interest of the book. I not only was able to learn a lot about something I was interested in, but I was able to discuss the deb ...more
Aug 28, 2012 Tom rated it really liked it
Lehrer wrote this book well--a pretty good balance of analysis and personal anecdotes about the debates (I would have liked a little more analysis). Not to mention his refreshing voice. Reading this book really gave me a great idea of how much pressure is on the candidates in presidential and vice-presidential debates; every word could be the one that decides the election. Lehrer is surprisingly candid about his experiences and really makes you feel the tension of the moment. He offers clear, in ...more
Alexa Wight
At first, reading this book on a week's notice that I'd have to read it for a class starting in a week with multiple assignments on the book, made me a bit stressed when starting. Even in the first pages I realized this is a very enjoyable book even though I had previously no interest in the topic of political debates. I came to understand that it really felt more narrative than dense, analytical writing I had experienced in past history class' summer reading. I thought this book was a great way ...more
Sep 04, 2012 Rebecca rated it liked it
This was a very interesting book. I learned a lot about the importance of presidential debates, something that I knew little about before. I had never known how much thought goes into every aspect of a debate from the venue to the topic to the moderator to the participants. Further, I could never have anticipated how much effort is involved on the part of the moderator and how much time goes into crafting a question and creating a debate with a flow where true dialogue occurs. This book was educ ...more
Alan Chen
Written by Jim Lehrer, veteran moderator of 11 debates on the national stage, this book should be like catnip for a political junkie like me. It turned out to be bland cat food. I expected epic tales of behind-the-scenes secrets, true insights into the debate process and his own personal reactions, as well as after-action reports from the participants themselves who could attest to what it's like under the glaring spotlight.

The book does, to its credit, check all those boxes. However, the book h
Nov 11, 2012 Don rated it liked it
Shelves: 2012
I felt a little sorry for the piling-on Jim Lehrer took after the first presidential debate this year. He is in position to know more about presidential debates than anyone since he's moderated more than anyone else. It's true that quite a few momentous events have occurred in these debates, but as they're in a public forum, they haven't escaped from memory for most of us who were there. Lehrer doesn't have a whole lot to add to these events although some of the behind-the-scenes stories provide ...more
Dec 19, 2012 Greg rated it really liked it
For people who follow presidential debates, Tension City is both wonderful for its insights on the process and tiresome for its focus on the "key debate moments" that we have heard about many times through the years. George W. Bush looking at his watch, the "you're no Jack Kennedy" moment, Ford on Soviet influence in Europe, sweaty Nixon, etc. etc. etc.

So why do I give it 4 stars? Two reasons:

1. Jim Lehrer has moderated more debates than anyone else, and his unique perspective from the moderato
Nov 29, 2013 Ben rated it liked it
As others have noted, this is not a comprehensive history of the last 50 years of presidential / vice-presidential debates. This is not the culmination of a revered journalist and debate moderator's storied career. What this feels like instead is Jim Lehrer looking back over said storied career one Sunday evening with a glass of single malt scotch and reminiscing. And that's just fine by me.

(PS. It's refreshing how critical Lehrer is of his own mistakes, or what he perceives to be his mistakes.
Feb 15, 2014 Louis rated it liked it
Jim Lehrer’s Tension City: Inside the Presidential Debates provides an inside look that the presidential debates we are so familiar with, including first-hand accounts of debates that went awry and controversial questions. Lehrer also explores the “story behind the story” with many of the famous moments in presidential debates such as President George Bush looking at his watch, Lloyd Bensons famous “You’re no Jack Kennedy” and many other moments that have become ingrained in memory.

In the end,
Joel Fishbane
May 06, 2014 Joel Fishbane rated it liked it
Shelves: reviewed-books
Given that Jim Lehrer has had a front row seat to eleven U.S. presidential debates, you wouldn't be wrong to expect more from Tension City, a slim volume that works as an appetizer when it should have been a meal. The metaphor is apt since, like a good croquette, Tension City is easy to digest and possible to finish in a single sitting. As a man who had a worm's eye view of some significant political moments, Lehrer had the opportunity to supply some deft political analysis, both on the art of d ...more
Nov 09, 2014 Steve rated it it was ok
This is not the first time an author has published a back-stage peek at what really happened behind the scenes at American presidential and vice-presidential debates over the last half century. There have been at least three previous debate chronicles published by Sidney Kraus, Alan Schroeder and Newton N. Minow with Craig L. Lamay. However, this may be the first printed documentary written by someone as close to the historical events as the candidates themselves, veteran debate moderator, Jim L ...more
John Parker
It was okay. It's been a while since I listened to this on audio. It's important to understand that this book is about Lehrer's experiences as the moderator more than it is about the candidates, the issues, or the debates themselves. It's a subtle distinction, but there were times when I wanted to hear less about Lehrer's thoughts and feelings and more about the candidates. That's not this book.

But if you're into Presidential History, there are probably a few interesting nuggets that make this
Oct 26, 2015 Amanda rated it really liked it
An interesting read about the presidential debates and what goes into them from the moderator's side. Jim Lehrer does a decent job of giving the reader a glimpse into how he prepares for debates, the history of presidential debates, and reviews nearly all the presidential debates starting with Nixon and Kennedy. I listened to this book as an audiobook, which is probably the best way to do it since there are audioclips from the various debates and interviews. So if you read this book, I highly re ...more
Oct 13, 2016 Mike rated it it was amazing
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James Charles Lehrer is an American journalist and the news anchor for The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on PBS, known for his role as a frequent debate moderator during elections. Lehrer is an author of non-fiction and fiction, drawing from his experiences and interests in history and politics.

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“Not everyone can be relaxed or comfortable enough to seriously listen to the (debate or interview) answers.” 1 likes
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